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  • Writer's pictureJoss Burns

United in suffering: Maintaining your mental health in times of geopolitical unrest

Stock photo of a man watching news in his living room.

There has been an unfortunate spike in geopolitical unrest around the world. There are of course the large, well-documented conflicts such as Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Palestine, but we can’t forget the disputes that receive less media coverage, such as Somalia, where a war has been taking place since 2009 or Iraq, where one million people are displaced internally and 4.1 million people still need need humanitarian assistance.

Perhaps most recently, there has been an increased intensity in the violence in Sudan, where the situation is quickly deteriorating after six months of war and humanitarian aid is sorely needed.

There are so many conflicts of different types, sizes, and characteristics that it is a challenge to keep up with each one that deserves our attention. Maps that seek to document the struggles can find it difficult to fully represent what’s happening.

The Wikipedia article on armed conflicts gives a glimpse into just how complicated regional struggles can be, with many dating back decades or more. Even so, understanding the context, vested interests, and emotional trigger points for each is almost an impossible task.

Human suffering: The common thread

However, no matter the size or type of the conflict, no matter who is involved or how it is defined by global organizations, one thing remains constant: civilians suffer.

This could be direct suffering – meaning the individuals who are present in the country and are in harm's way. They have to face the uncertainty, fear, potential human rights abuses, and lack of basic amenities on a daily basis that can place incredible strain on individuals.

Indirect trauma

But these aren’t the only people who are acutely affected by political or systemic violence. Many more will also suffer vicariously, whether nationals who reside in other countries and are forced to watch the conflict or, indeed, anyone who has a vested emotional interest in the conflict. Some who fall into this category may have previously been directly exposed to war, and the resurgence of new violence can bring unresolved trauma to the fore once more.

As Joseph E. Troiani. Ph.D., Associate Professor at Adler University says:

Picture of man in suit.  Official photo Dr. Troiani
Joseph E. Troiani. Ph.D.

"One of the problems with the extensive news coverage of the wars in either Eastern Europe or the Middle East is the risk of developing vicarious trauma. Every day we are witnessing the fighting, destruction, and the suffering of the populations impacted. This trauma is especially impactful if the viewer can identify with any part of the trauma they are witnessing. In short, it hits home for the viewer."

The mental health challenges that sufferers face

In the wake of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, where millions of people are faced with the daily realities of war and millions more have been forced to leave their country, Mental Health Europe conducted a study on the mental health effects.

The study focuses on the short-term, medium-term, and the long-term challenges that individuals face – which can act as a blueprint for all conflicts. When it comes to mental health, it’s a good idea to think about it in this way. All mental health issues, whether domestic violence, the effects of suicide, or even intergenerational race-based trauma, exist long beyond the trigger point and have lasting effects for potentially years.

Most survivors of the Hamas attacks no longer have immediate needs in terms of clean water, medical supplies, or shelter, but will be entering into the medium-term stage, where post-trauma mental health effects become apparent. The civilians of Gaza, on the other hand, are currently suffering from the lack of basic supplies. Their needs are immediate and the current living conditions are incompatible with good mental health.

So we know what we’re talking about, we’ll quickly define the three stages of challenges according to Mental Health Europe.

Immediate challenges

The immediate effects of war are quite simply devastating. Individuals stuck in the middle are in constant fear for their lives and often have limited access to basic human needs. For mental health professionals who want to aid these people, it’s a challenge to get support to those who actually need it.

It is a critical time for those suffering, particularly for those with disabilities, members of the LGBTQ+ community, or children. Being able to provide tailored support at this time can go a long way in helping individuals down the line. Obviously, due to the circumstances, this is often difficult or impossible to achieve.

Medium-term challenges

Individuals who have been forced to flee the immediate danger will often find a new set of challenges awaiting them. In most cases, if lines of safety have been properly set up by organizations and government bodies, there is no longer the pressing need for shelter, food, etc.

At this stage, challenges such as returning to education, logistical challenges, and racial discrimination in the host country can cause stress. Unsurprisingly, this can have serious repercussions on mental health, manifesting as anything from depression to rage.

Long-term challenges

Looking at the long term, individuals are much more likely to suffer invisibly. They may be settled in a new country and, depending on the laws or individual skills, have been able to find work.

But the lasting effects can severely affect ongoing quality of life. Trauma responses such as PTSD can harm individuals’ ability to lead happy, content lives and can lead to struggles with relationships. This stage is often much more private and requires personalized, ongoing support to help those who suffer.

Don’t suffer in silence – get in touchBy their nature, geopolitical conflicts take a huge emotional toll on a broad subsection of society. Whether you have been directly or indirectly involved in some kind of conflict and feel it is affecting your mental health, you deserve support.

If you would like to regain control of your mental health and need someone to talk to, please reach out to us at Mental Health of America Illinois.


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